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Laptops for the poor – why the debate needs to change

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Technology

On this Blog Action Day focussing on poverty, I thought it timely to talk about access to the internet, or perhaps more importantly how the millions living in poverty access the internet.

It is unfortunate that much of the recent debate surrounding access to the internet for many in the developing world rests on the controversial issue of ‘One Laptop per Child’. From Silicon Valley to New Delhi, experts have focused on developing low cost, robust and power-friendly laptops to donate to schools and other institutions through out the developing world. The most high profile being the One Laptop Per Child Foundation.

There is no doubt that the intentions of these schemes are honourable.  But sadly, the debate has been far too focused on the technology. Many question the total cost of ownership of the laptops arguing that the apparent cost of $100 is misleading. They suggest, for example, that recurrent costs such as maintenance and upgrades are not factored in to the headline figure. Others question whether refurbished systems might be a more viable alternative. Many discuss the merits of lab-based computing environments and how they best serve the needs of the poor.  What is important to note is that these technical debates are not new. Experts have struggled to work out ways of providing better, cheaper and faster access to the internet for the poor for years now.

It’s all about internet access and not technology

But all this debate over the technology is a distraction. What really matters is access to content. Content that we in the developed world take for granted. Content that is readily available to us on a daily basis. From Google to Wikipedia. From Facebook to YouTube. We are all, in the North, extremely privileged to have such information at our fingertips.

The debate has to shift away from the tech. New innovative and ground breaking technology is important but we need to keep the internet access issue at the heart of the matter. There is no ‘single solution’ to fixing the technical problem. In many cases, one-laptop-per-child schemes will work; in others a computer lab running refurbished computers will be more appropriate. In other examples the market fixes the technology question. For example, the explosion of cell phones, across sub-Saharan Africa, immediately provides a powerful platform in the provision of content to thousands, if not millions. It is the culmination of all these ideas that will ultimately help fix the access issue.

Take China and the earthquake back in May 2008. It was through a combination of the existing mobile phone network and the new social networking service, Twitter (based thousands of miles away in California), that provided crucial news to the thousands caught up in the devastation.

With the focus of the blogging community on Blog Action Day 2008 centring on poverty let’s use it as an opportunity to shift this important debate forward.

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  1. Comment by Adam Hooper posted on

    "From Silicon Valley to New Delhi, experts have focused on developing low cost, robust and power-friendly laptops to donate to schools and other institutions through out the developing world. The most high profile being the One Laptop Per Child Foundation."

    Who are these "experts"? OLPC is managed by techies, interfaces with governments and CEOs, and enlists open-source computer programmers as staff and volunteers. All these people are indeed experts, but probably not experts in the most appropriate fields.

    I have asked education and development experts in Tanzania and Rwanda if they thought OLPC would succeed, and my responses were quirked eyebrows: "are you serious?" And, for my part, I suppose I wasn't.

    And I agree with you 100%: cell phones are already breaking down barriers and there is no sign of the flood relenting. Google is busily mapping East Africa and wiring the continent. And I, in my comfortable office in New York, am able to keep in touch with African friends I never would have met a decade ago. I know they scrounge money to access their email and appear with dignity to the rest of the world; and I also know they are infinitely grateful for the opportunity to do so.

  2. Comment by John Adams posted on

    Jason, I agree that the focus should not be on the technology, but on access to internet content.

    But large-scale technology investment is still essential in delivering this access - the advent of fibre connections in East Africa will be a major step change in connectivity for this part of the world, but without further investment in national telecommunications infrastructure this may not impact beyond the major cities.

    On the other hand, the most useful tools and sites on the internet have usually come from the lighter end of the spectrum where groups of users need to do something and innovate.

    And I think we'll see much more poverty-impacting innovation once the South is properly connected.

  3. Comment by Bas Kotterink posted on

    Good points, Jason. It is all about user content and connectivity, not devices. If the network society (informationalism) is the new economic paradigm than it is lack of connectivity that is holding back Africa. A key driver behind the current wave of user generated innovation (2.0) in the North is mainstream access to broadband Internet. Unfortunately, affordable and speedy Internet is still a pipedream in many places in the South. If we can provide the network, devices, content and services will follow.

  4. Comment by Damian posted on

    Strikes me that a sense of balance is required between the laptop and what can enable it to become a life-changing medium. Jason has set out a valid argument and one that I believe would find support in the OLPC community.

    The mission of is quite clear about what it aims to achieve:

    "Mission statement: To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning."

    I for one hadn't appreciated all the elements in the mission - which on face value I find hard not to agree with. The laptop itself has been grabbing the headlines over the last 18 months. As for the 'connected' element - I've personally not seen too much evidence of activity in this area - that's not to say there hasn't been things I've missed.

    So does the debate need moving or is it that the mission needs full embracement and dare I say it marketing to create the same level of interest 'buzz' seen for the laptops. I for one would like to see the more rounded approach which I believe Jason is calling for.

    Are the costs associated with the investment to achieve connectivity less palitble and headline friendly than the $100 laptop - particularly in the current economic climate?

  5. Comment by Simon Dickson posted on

    I'm no expert on the development aspects of this, but I think we can already see the 'ripple effects' from the One Laptop Per Child initiative - with benefits not just in the developing world, but here at home too. It gave credibility to the wider use of open source software, including the free Linux operating system. And it arguably paved the way for the new wave of ultra-cheap ultra-portable laptops in the commercial marketplace, such as the Asus Eee or the UK's education-centric Elonex One. It's not too long ago that such machines cost £2,000 rather than £200. It may not have been the project's intention, but in that respect at least, I'd say OLPC was already a success.

  6. Comment by Andrew Cooper posted on

    I agree that internet access is vital. I'm two weeks into a six week project to develop an information systems strategy for the organisation that registers births, deaths and various other things here in Tanzania. Currently a maximum of 20% of births are registered - there are lots of reasons for this, but it's typical of Sub-Saharan Africa.

    This has many implications: for example, the current population of Tanzania (40m) is at best an educated guess. More importantly, it's difficult to plan when you don't know how many children are being born and it's even more difficult to protect children's rights.

    Tanzania has a policy of exploiting information technologies to make step changes in the lives of its citizens. Mobile access is certainly a good example. When I first worked here in 1996 I spent four days in Arusha. For the first time in my life, I was cut off from the rest of the world. The land lines were down and in those far off days the idea that mobile technology had anything to offer Africa hadn't crossed anyone's mind.

    Today, mobile coverage - at least in towns and cities - is excellent and it has revolutionised the lives of many. Even people who can't afford their own phone can go to a street kiosk and pay to use one.

    There are many ways in which our registration project could exploit mobile technologies, but I realise that this is a comment rather than an essay. If you have any thoughts about this, I'd be delighted to hear from you. Visit (only recently set up, but I'll be adding a lot of material over the next few days) or email me at


  7. Comment by Mike Amos-Simpson posted on

    In the places I've visted in Africa access to internet cafe's has been pretty good - access to reliable internet not so! I wonder which will come first - affordable & useful laptops with internet connection, or phones with internet access (and affordable)?

  8. Comment by Peter Sweeney posted on

    Jason - Thanks for starting off this discussion thread. You will see that naturally the debate has moved from the provision of laptops to that of infrastructure difficulties within Africa. This is a subject that is close to my heart and I can honestly say that on a daily basis I am researching African Infrastructure issues. There is some good news. Have a look at this web site. This gives a really useful insight into the developments around the introduction of a fibre infrastructure across Africa. Not only do you have details of the submarine cables that will connect Africa to the rest of the world but you will also see that there are many initiatives underway to improve the in-country and cross country fibre networks in Africa, like the NITEL fibre routes across Nigeria.This is particularly important for land-locked countries that would otherwise not have the advantages of a coastal fibre cable. It looks like late 2009/early 2010 will see reliable fibre truly arrive in Africa. If you look at the logo on the web site it shows a light bulb - with Africa inside it - great logo. Fibre infrastructure really will lighten up Africa and this will have significant impact on the rest of the world. Good comms will allow other countries to invest in call centres and off-shoring etc bringing much needed revenue to these countries.

  9. Comment by Jonathan Woodroof posted on

    Is the the ever-expanding cellular ICT infrastructure via programs such as txteagle utilize not a viable means of (at least partially) solving some of the problems brought up here?

  10. Comment by ASUS Notebook Terbaik dan Favoritku posted on

    Way back 6 years ago, it's fun to re-read this article. Now we don't always need a laptop for doing things like opening the web and finding information we need. There are also cheap gadgets from china that help relatively poor people gaining that access too.